023. ThinkWeek

Product groups do not have to spend time studying the future of the Internet, or researching this phenomenon. We want to, and will, invest resources to be a leader Internet support. –BillG, April 1994

People always seem to want to know the habits or techniques used by CEOs for managing the company. I’m not sure if that helps or not, but at the very least it can be interesting. Before I became Technical Assistant, Bill started on his own process of organizing time to get away and “think” which eventually became ThinkWeek. I put a good deal of energy into making ThinkWeek a more structured and productive time as the rise of email had a way of substituting email activity with the kind of deep learning Bill intended. Over the years, ThinkWeek achieved some sort of mythical qualities for some. While the process evolved to be rather different over later years, the early days were definitely something to look back on and reflect.

Back to 022. Injecting New Ideas and IQ: The Information Superhighway

Microsoft’s overall rhythm, the “rhythm of the company”, as SteveB later called it, was still in the formative stages. In the early 1990s, the company fiscal year budget drove most of the rhythm for executives, and the performance review tended to set a yearly rhythm for product groups, though the product schedule was the real master often trumping work on reviews. For BillG, who was always obsessive about planning out a calendar for himself, the rhythm that seemed to matter most to him was the twice-yearly ThinkWeek times he set aside (they weren’t a full week, but close). ThinkWeek had been mostly an informal time for Bill to catch up and to get away from the day-to-day of the CEO job and Redmond. Given the scope of thinking, it seemed an opportune time to up-level the process.

View of Hood Canal during a sunny clear day.
The view of Hood Canal from grounds of Alderbrook Resort, just up the street from Gateaway. Hood Canal was a popular nearby vacation spot for people from Bill’s parents and grandparents generation. ThinkWeek happened in April and October so it was never sunny and clear like this. (Source: Alderbrook Resort photo, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alderbrook_Resort_%26_Spa)

Bill’s family vacation house, Gateaway, was located on the Hood Canal, about two hours by car or by ferry from Redmond. The Canal was a favorite place for Bill and his family, and where he vacationed with his grandparents when he was young. It was peaceful and isolated.

Learning about ThinkWeek from AaronG, the previous TA, I decided to make it a much bigger deal than simply gathering materials from teams for Bill to read. ThinkWeek was a fascinating way to immerse Bill in the details of what was going on, not just at Microsoft but across the industry. I spent a month preparing (overachieving) for each of the three ThinkWeeks we had together. Bill offered some guidance each time, such as the topic of a memo(s) he wanted to write ahead of the week, or if there was a theme he wanted to explore. He would suggest I speak with specific people for ideas. I discretely pinged people 1:1 who I knew would not start big email chains with subject lines like “BILLG THINKWEEK!!!” The frontline leaders in program management offered the best suggestions, that came without agendas.

I created a spreadsheet (of course) to track ideas for content across a wide range of formats: product plans, books, magazine articles, memos, and demonstrations. I had a field day at an office supply store buying filing boxes, color-coded folders, and labels to create banker’s boxes of ThinkWeek materials.

One of the ground rules I established was that I tried to avoid the use of ThinkWeek as a deadline or forcing function to rush to get something written just for the week. I generally insisted on memos and product plans that were already written for the normal course of work, and not special ThinkWeek pieces. I always felt these would confuse more than enlighten since there was no way of knowing if something was or would ever get connected to ongoing product development. Interestingly this is something that would completely reverse in a few years, when ThinkWeek would become more of a wide-open all-company brainstorming event.

The demos presented the most difficulty. In the early 1990s before software was released, it was almost always the case that a given product required a bunch of random hacks to work, and those hacks meant nothing else would run on that PC. Preparing a demo of something like a new version of Excel meant preparing an entire PC to demo only that version of Excel. This was also before laptops, so each ThinkWeek also meant there were a half dozen or more PCs that I had packed into my Jeep Cherokee (I was in my Northwest phase) along with reading material, all of which I delivered after he’d had one full day on his own.

Our first ThinkWeek together was in April of 1993, a few months after I started the job. The contents skewed toward the present, with the whole company immersed in the development of Chicago, Cairo, and finishing the first major release of Windows Office with new versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and the Access database. Microsoft Research was getting started as well.

Bill was fixated on the need to gain more alignment and synergy across the product lines with respect to 32-bits, the shell, and more still being settled, and execution plans were being put in place. Bill used ThinkWeek as a chance to delineate all the places where Microsoft could have a stronger strategy and leverage shared code more, to be more efficient in engineering effort, use less memory on running systems, and provide a more consistent experience for customers. He made a lot of lists. There were many core technologies to be developed and for each group to contribute to and use, rather than create more suboptimal redundancies.

An example of combining the high-altitude view with the ground-level perspective was demonstrated when we walked through many of the products under development and considered all the ways text was used and used inefficiently. Each product, Word, Excel, Publisher, Visual C++, Windows (itself had many places where text was used), and then all the CD-ROM products required what was called rich text—text with formatting, bullets, colors, numbering, alignment, fonts, and more. Each of those products built their own text capabilities, limited to what they believed they needed in the moment. Over time, each had many customer requests to improve that—examples, such as how Excel customers wanted to use multiple fonts within a single cell or how Publisher wanted to use bullets and numbering like Word. It was early enough in PCs that each product also had a different strategy for displaying text in languages with characters beyond the basics used in English and European languages. Some could handle Asian, some right-to-left, some vertical, but none could yet handle complex scripts like Arabic well. We spent a few hours making a list of all the text inefficiencies while firing off mail to lots of people who then scrambled trying to figure out how best to say they were just doing what customers demanded or schedule permitted.

A little back story is that the 1994 film True Lies was to feature not-yet-shipping Arabic Windows and Word in the opening scene and had just contacted Microsoft for help in making that happen—for the company meeting that year I helped get a copy of the ¾” video tape to use at the meeting to highlight worldwide innovation.1

It was easy to look at this and ask, “Doesn’t a CEO have better things to do?” The company was maturing operationally and technologically, and the combination of the pace of change and the empowerment across teams meant topics like cross-product architecture were not yet part of the fabric of the company beyond Bill. Even within just one group, Desktop Apps (where I would work next), there was almost no code-sharing to facilitate the scenarios we experienced, just for text. If architecture didn’t matter to a CEO, problems like this could go on for years and no one would notice or even be rewarded for thinking them through. It was a key differentiator of Microsoft that the company was thinking across the broad product line at such a level of granularity, even if not everything was acted upon it served to reinforce a culture of alignment and synergy while maintaining a level of empowerment. All of this was contrasted with the absurd cross-company process IBM used, whose disenfranchisement was all too familiar to Microsoft—the Management Committee(s) or the crazy Common User Access interface standards that burdened (crushed) OS/2 before it even started.

This first ThinkWeek was also the first time Bill looked deeply at infrastructure for the information superhighway. The nascent internet would prove to be a time for very important memos, from many people. In the next chapter I will cover the internet and the impact on Microsoft, including Bill’s first ThinkWeek impressions in late 1993.

I collected materials on all the ways the telco and cable companies believed consumers would connect to “the net” including X.25 dial-up, Asynchronous Transfer Mode, ISDN, and so on. I set up accounts on AOL and CompuServe, and we even dialed up to the original multiplayer game network Sierra Online, which Bill found intriguing (AT&T also found it intriguing and acquired it and made it even more intriguing). The email threads that followed these demos dug deep into the ways consumers would get high-speed connectivity to the home that was not cost-prohibitive or whether consumers got stuck at dial-up speeds. These challenges became important as the ideas for Marvel, the code name for the new Microsoft Network online service to be released with Chicago, were solidified, work that was newly under investigation and a big part of these discussions.

Product demos contrasted with deep technical reading and strategic discussions and offered a bit of a respite. The demos were extremely important to me as I felt I was representing the teams and wanted their work to shine. Normally a demo for pre-release products was a nail-biting experience even for those working on the product. They were using the product day in and day out and knew the landmines. I was given a script and told not to veer at all from the script. Good luck doing that with Bill.

One demo was for the forthcoming release of Microsoft Word for Windows, version 6.0, code name T3 (a nod to the film Terminator 2 that had been released when the project started). Word built a sort-of sophisticated rules engine into the product (eventually marketed as machine learning) to implement features that would automatically format a document, such as look for headings or numbered lists. I followed the demo script, but the feature did not seem to work, so we typed a basic letter including “Dear Bill” and “Sincerely” and then selected the Auto Format command from the Tools menu. A second or so later, nothing seemed to happen. Then Dear Bill turned into Dear Bill and Sincerely became Sincerely. That was it. Bill fired off mail and a scramble on the Word team ensued. Additional demo steps were provided later in the day.

The Chicago product was making progress. Pre-release builds leaked over the summer. Without the internet, leaks did not go far, but the trade press picked up on screenshots and extrapolated from there. The core question moved from synergy and alignment to whether Chicago was going to be competitive with Macintosh.

In subsequent ThinkWeeks, I structured most of the reading and materials and demonstrations around operating systems or applications taking advantage of the latest operating system capabilities like networking, storage, and multimedia.

The ACT (Advanced Consumer Technology) group was in the early stages of one of the earliest tablet computers Microsoft considered, code named WinPad, running on the Windows CE operating system, which was under development. Windows CE was the precursor to Windows Phone and was an implementation of parts of Windows for low-powered ARM chips (instead of Intel) and designed for stylus input. This was before the Palm Pilot that debuted in 1996, giving new life to the category of personal digital assistants, or PDAs (pioneered a decade earlier by devices such as the Psion). The primary competitor that was much more intriguing was from a company named General Magic with a product spun out of Apple by some of the original Macintosh developers. As General Magic was developing its product, Apple released the Newton, which, while ultimately a failure, seemed competitively scary during ThinkWeek.

The external focus on indirect competitors was a hallmark of Bill’s approach to competition. The ACT team was thinking about the Newton and General Magic, but no one else at Microsoft was. For example, General Magic had invented a programming language called TeleScript, core to the way the platform could be extended. Historically, PDAs were more purpose-built devices and not rich platforms, and certainly not platforms with their own programming languages. From Bill’s perspective, BASIC was a key part of the early PC era, and it followed that a new platform with a pioneering new language would be a powerful combination. In poring over the documentation for TeleScript, it became clear that Microsoft would need to up its game in creating applications for a more connected world as envisioned by both Newton and General Magic.

The more traditional PC competition was much more focused on the direction Apple was taking Macintosh. Apple, under CEO John Scully, had repurposed a faltering project started years earlier called Taligent. The project had become the punchline for jokes about vaporware, but Apple sorely needed a more modern operating system. Chicago would be vastly superior to the current Macintosh in how modern it was relative to running more than one program at a time. Apple seemed stuck. Strangely, Taligent morphed into a partnership with IBM. In some ways, that made it difficult for Bill to take seriously the Taligent materials I provided for reading (there was no software)—he knew well the risks of a deep partnership with IBM (as did BradSi and the Chicago team). Bill did his best, though in classic style, to make the most of the risks that could come from Taligent executing. They had a much broader vision than Chicago that would never materialize. That did not stop Bill from using it as a competitive threat or risk when talking to the Chicago (or Cairo) teams.

Sometimes things didn’t always go as planned and one topic ended up taking up a big chunk of time. One ThinkWeek, we spent a good deal of time on the competition with Lotus Notes. The EMS project was starting to gain engineering traction and had sent over product specifications. The memo I previously wrote on using Visual Basic and Access with EMS was the topic of many email threads. Evenings were often spent watching videos. We watched a videotape of a keynote from Lotus CEO Jim Manzi with a demo of Lotus Notes that was definitely something that pushed those competitive buttons.

Bill wrote a detailed memo on competing with Lotus Notes, sharing his views of what he had learned, again using his perspective to stitch together the Microsoft organization. Up until that point, the field sales organization had only been raising the competitive risks of Notes but had nothing to respond with. Bill provided some guidance but mostly motivation to get our collective act together. He pointed out that selling email and workgroup software was a long process and required partners, industry analysts, demonstrations, and more. It was a good and specific motivator.

ThinkWeek would come and go. Emails would get responded to. Some people priding themselves on pulling together what was needed (and then some) in super short order and replying. Other replies would trickle in a week later. Memos would always fly around campus email even if they were only moderately interesting, they were still BillG memos. A few times a memo would be critically important to a group or the company.

Introduction I enjoyed the Internet retreat. I was pleased with the discussion and ideas that were presented. Even in the few weeks since the retreat the Internet phenomena has given new evidence of its high activity level with announcements like CommerceNet. A key point that I made in my introduction is that Microsoft has decided to bet that the Internet will be very important. This is part of our strategy and an important part of it. Product groups do not have to spend time studying the future of the Internet, or researching this phenomenon. We want to, and will,  invest resources to be a leader Internet support, fully understanding that if we are wrong about this it will have been a mistake. In this memo I want to outline various groups that will be following up with specific action plans.  I have highlighted the key person responsible for each of these missions.  Since in many ways, J Allard is our public face on Internet services, I am asking him to act as a focal point for our Internet plans until we are ready to begin to publicize our on-line service, Marvel.
ThinkWeek memo written just after an offsite on the internet (covered in the next full chapter). The highlighting is mine. The “M Memo” is because the PC used to print the memo did not have the Microsoft logo TrueType font installed (the letter M rendered the whole stylized Microsoft logotype), as was the case with most every PC outside Microsoft which often made for fun nights at Kinko’s for some marketing people. (Source: Trial Exhibit)

The April 1994 ThinkWeek was my third and last. Bill devoted a good deal of time to writing his first strategic internet memo, which set the tone for the strategy the company would take going forward. We were fresh from the offsite on internet strategy and the memo was a chance to reflect on the important initiatives coming out of the gathering.

Bill was keenly aware of the ability for groups to craft unique strategies around a technology shift. He set out to make sure that teams across the company would not slow down the transition to an internet-centric strategy. Over the next couple of years, many would document Microsoft’s transformation from a desktop company to an internet company—this April 1994 memo was the moment that happened.

We spent a good deal of time going back and forth over what I saw as the risks that each group would “interpret” the internet differently and try to absorb different parts into their plans at different times and in different ways. Many groups were skeptical about the internet, including the new online service, multimedia and consumer, and the enterprise teams. The memo crafted a great line to open: “Product groups do not have to spend time studying the future of the Internet, or researching this phenomenon. We want to, and will, invest resources to be a leader Internet support, fully understanding that if we are wrong about this it will have been a mistake.”

About a year later, Bill repeated and amplified much of this memo in a loftier and more intentionally external missive that would receive wider distribution and wide acclaim, Internet Tidal Wave. While the April 1994 memo was a more standard list of technologies and owners (in other words, a memo to get work done), Tidal Wave a year later was an exciting narrative and combined with the imminent Windows 95 release, served as a much more dramatic moment in time.

There was more that year though. In fact, the company-changing products for 1995 were on the way. Chicago builds complete with the Start Menu, as we would come to know it, began to work well-enough to at least demonstrate, along with the 32-bit version of Office and a slate of soon to be Designed for Windows 95 products. The press visibility of Chicago energized the whole of Microsoft, still more than a year before shipping. We spent a good deal of time using the most recent Chicago builds, which was hugely motivating for Bill.

Given the rise of the internet and discussions fresh on our mind, ThinkWeek dove deeply into consumer and home computing, in particular content. The industry view at the time was content is king, an expression driving consolidations, mergers, partnerships, and more across the telephone carriers, cable companies, Hollywood, and online services, especially AOL. Similarly, the idea that the internet would be used to operate businesses was not mainstream at all, with the focus on the internet as a potential consumer information superhighway technology.

The Consumer division invested heavily in creating CD-ROM titles—applications that required a CD-ROM on a PC along with capabilities to play video and audio, which were relatively new—having these titles was an important differentiator for Windows. Chicago promised to make using multimedia even easier and more reliable with better hardware support and less of a need for consumers to struggle just to get sound to play on a PC. I assembled a portable multimedia computer, a suitcase-size PC weighing 20 pounds, and loaded up over 40 multimedia titles. We spent hours exploring a wide variety of topics from Autos to Strauss, from the JFK Assassination to Earthquake Preparedness, as well as a variety of games for all ages.

Bill wrote detailed feedback on these titles, not from a user review perspective but from a strategic perspective. Could these titles be repurposed on the Marvel online service? Shouldn’t titles have more quizzes, reference materials such as maps, and always more videos (tiny little postage stamp sized videos!)? Many of the titles would transition to be part of Marvel in some form or another, and all would be important parts of articulating the broader internet message beyond simply protocols and formats.

ThinkWeek was intense, but it was also fun. We would sit sit upstairs in the loft of the vacation house drinking endless Diet Coke (Bill was just starting his Cherry Coke phase under the influence of Warren Buffett, whom he’d met two years earlier at Hood Canal). We had a great time hacking away at all the pre-release software, making lists, diagramming on the whiteboard, and keeping an eye on email threads (even for Bill, connectivity was dial up). There was no pretense and truly no distractions other than the weather, which I had to keep an eye on because of the ferry ride. We spent perhaps 12-15 hours each day with breaks when mostly we’d just do our own email.

Rendering of Bill Gates from The New Yorker "Email With Bill" article. Very weird.
The press really struggled to “render” Bill. There was an obsession with “nerd” while also trying to mix in “magnate” as in this from The New Yorker article, January 10, 1994. (Source: personal collection).

Sometimes the “thinking” would be interrupted by some Microsoft issue of urgency (like the FTC or DOJ) or even something outside of work. There was always something to distract and I had to do my best to help focus on the memo writing goals or making it through demos (the disappointment from teams who put together demos only to find out that we didn’t have time sometimes forced me to stretch the truth a bit about going through the demo).

Excerpt from link in New Yorker "New employees at Microsoft..."
In the New Yorker article, Seabrook describes his observation of email culture. While email flattened the Microsoft org structure, it was not this flat in 1994. This did describe Bill’s defining, and first, trip to Africa he just returned from. He even got me read some of his books on the continent from that trip’s “reading list”. Who knew Africa would become so important to him (and also me)? (Source: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1994/01/10/e-mail-from-bill)

One unique distraction was ultimately documented in a January 1994 article in The New Yorker, “E-Mail From Bill” in which John Seabrook chronicled his ongoing conversation over email with Bill on topics ranging from personal job satisfaction to innovation.2 There were a lot of highbrow conversations about the information superhighway. Mostly the article is a time capsule trying to explain the Microsoft culture and even the culture of email to readers of The New Yorker, most of whom were years away from email.

At the end of one message, I wrote:  This reporting via e-mail is really fascinating and I think you are going to come across in an attractive way, in case you weren’t sure of that.  Gates wrote:  I comb my hair everytime before I send email hoping to appear attractive. I try and use punctuation in a friendly way also. I send :) and never :(.
E-mail was such a new way to communicate and so “fascinating” or novel that this exchange as worthy of the pagers of The New Yorker at the time. I still laugh at Bill’s deliberate use of smiley faces, which was so not in his lexicon at the time. (Source: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1994/01/10/e-mail-from-bill)

At the end of each week, I’d pack up all the desktop and laptop PCs, boxes, and books and come back to the office to return everything. The folders of photocopied articles and memos organized by topic would travel around with Bill in one of his two carry-on bags, sometimes for months. Then one day an email out of the blue would reference that lone article on ATM or micro-payments or something.

The real legwork was going back and thanking all the people that put together demos and materials and doing my best to give them a play-by-play of any interactions while being careful not to have that influence anything other than morale.

On to 024. Discovering “Cornell is WIRED!” [Chapter IV]


Author’s Note: In a blog post from Raymond Chen (RaymondC) he describes a 2008 discussion where I described the tape as Beta format. Now I am not sure. I am only certain that the techs at the show were briefly panicked when I handed them the tape. See https://devblogs.microsoft.com/oldnewthing/20080418-01/?p=22673.